March 20 2013
In this lengthy blog I will list some important tips from expert poets, explain some of my own thoughts and preferences on poetry, and why modern poetry is generally not popular.
What are the likely reasons for unpopularity of modern poetry? All poets enjoy writing their poems but also would like to be popular with the general public. But usually the many modern poets in attempting to be over- clever are creating unclear difficult- to-follow poems. The modern poet’s wind-up writing for themselves, and for the rare intelligentsia, rather than for the general public. For example: E. E. Cummings2 an elite poet stated: “The poems to come are for you [fellow poets] and for me and are not for most people─it’s no use to pretend that most people and ourselves [fellow poets] are alike. Most people have less in common with ourselves than the square root of minus one.” Most modern poets with their more complex style─ end up writing for fellow poets with the same style and for a small portion as the general population.
Also the regular repetition and formal restrictions of modern poetry are not popular. And some modern poets seem to be using surrealist (unconnected subconscious thoughts) which a reader is unable to comprehend─or frequently using symbols and thoughts not familiar to the average person. It is good to leave some parts to the reader’s imagination, but often this is carried too far. The overall effect is puzzlement. It is a challenge and not enjoyable to have to think too much to solve the puzzle. Robert Hillyer1, an expert on poets and poetry, had it right in my opinion when he stated correctly: “There is a good deal of poetry today that shuns all intelligible communication, and its acceptance or rejection will depend on the reader’s individual indulgence in mystification.”Many people can only follow an occasional line of this modern poetry. I have experienced this myself. Most poets intend to communicate, but in my opinion, most modern poets fail to do so, and hence do not satisfy needs of the general public.
In the book 20th Century Poetry and Poetics2, most of the popular poets such as Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Irving Layton, Ezra Pound, Frost, Leonard Cohen, to mention a few─were asked to describe poetry. From these elite poets, here and there I was able to pick out a few useful snippets ( like a few thimbles of water out of a cup of water) of useful information. I found the explanations generally were very abstruse, wordy, i.e., rambling─ apart from Ezra Pound and Robert Frost. I thought how can one write clear poetry if their prose is not clear?
I class myself with the general population and certainly not with the elite poets or most modern poets. So my preference is the more understandable poems like Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman. For example, Robert Frost’s most popular poem is a simple one : “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Another very popular poem is “Flanders Fields,” also beautiful in its simplicity. I believe the more conversational, informal, familiar type of poems will be more popular with the general public. Hence, I prefer poetry with a lot of word pictures, not photographic in detail but expressing a picture with feelings, After all this is what poetry is all about─feelings. Good poetry also expresses the senses of taste, sound, and sight with similes and metaphors, assonance (likeness of sound in stressed vowels) and alliteration (repletion of initial sound of a consonant). Here is a line of my own which demonstrates the use of alliteration in and assonance in a poem. “My grand old oak tree casting a towering shadow toward me. The repetitive consonants are in bold and the repetitive vowel sounds are underlined.
Robert Hillyer1, the poet expert, does not appreciate Ezra Pound and his informal style. I give only a few lines of Pound’s great poetry.
Her are two simple lines I like from his poem: The River- Merchant’s Wife: A Letter
“If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,”
Here is his poem: In A Station of the Metro
“The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. “
In my opinion, and many other readers, these are beautiful poetic lines.
Some Essential Basic Rules for a Poem
Hillyer1 lists three important/essential questions about a poem.
1- What is the author’s intention?
2- Has he succeeded in it?
3- Was the intention worthwhile in the first place?
Ezra Pound2 proposes the following 3 principles:
1-Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
2-To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
Use no slush words to fill up a space.
3- As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome.
I would add the following to satisfy the general public .
1- The poem must be clear and understandable. Discard difficult words. Use simple language. The popular Irish poet ,W.B. Yeats strives for passionate , normal speech in his poems.
2- The subject must be worth writing about. For example the following do not meet this requirement unless there is an important message: A Crooked Fence, A Red Wheelbarrow, Green Moss by the Path , etc.
3- No surrealist poems. But the poet draws on his subconscious images which are appropriate.
4- Free verse is acceptable in cases where the subject does not lend itself to rhymed verse. For some subjects the metre and rhyme poses difficulties in getting the message across.
5- A poem should be either entertaining or with a message. if possible with some surprise , and with some parts left the readers imagination.
6- The poet must be inspired by the subject before attempting to write a poem. Then the poet’s enthusiasm will transfer to the reader.
Rhythm or Music in the Words and Lines
Rhythm is obtained with refrain, line length, and rhyme, but mainly by stressed and unstressed syllables This big subject I leave to the experts. The rhythm should vary with moods of the lines, e.g. fast, slow, happy, sad, etc. The words should fit the mood. The poet works intuitively and the words hopefully will come to meet the mood and rhythm. Rhythm helps bring to birth the idea and the image (T.S. Eliot)2.
Further Tips from the Experts2
- Minimize adjectives and maximize verbs and participles (use verbs ending in ‘ing” and ‘en” and ‘ed”.
- The rhythm should simulate the action . E.g., fast for running, slow for falling snowflakes.
- Poetry is recollection of feelings ( W.H. Auden)2.
- There must be passages of greater and less intensity (emphasis) to give rhythm of fluctuating emotions. The lessor intensity passages are prosaic. Hence no poet can write a poem of amplitude unless he is a master of the prosaic (T.S. Eliot). [ I personally find it most interesting that these expert poets, apart from Pound and Frost, in describing poetry in Reference 2 wrote in a complex hard, rambling style ,wordy, unclear style. They seem not able to express clearly in concise, simple terms.
- If the poet is not moved than the reader is not moved. If the poet is not moved then it is, as poetry, meaningless ( T.S.Eliot). No tears, revelation, or surprise by the poet─ no tears, revelation, or surprise for the reader ( Robert Frost).
- Question every word and sound and implication and review , review, revise endlessly. ( T.S. Eliot).
- Do not describe in detail . But rather relate your feelings about the action or picture. Don’t be descriptive; the painter can describe much better than you can ( Ezra Pound)2.
- Poetry is an art and not a pastime (Ezra Pound)2. [Too many recent amateurs with their weird experimentations have helped give poetry a bad name.]
- Poetry should have personal vibrancy (Robert Lowell)2.
- Read a poem aloud to get a feel for the rhythm and the harmony of the words and the rhythm E.g., (Sylvia Plath)2 .
- Don’t make each line stop dead at the end and begin each line with a heave (Ezra Pound).
The Enjoyment of Writing Poetry
Sometimes a poet finds themselves in a trance when engrossed and inspired by the subject. But this is rare. [Of course it has to be a good one and worthwhile to get this in-a-trace-feeling.] The experience of writing a poem is a magnificent one (Sylvia Plath).
1- Hillyer, R., In Pursuit of Poetry , McGraw Hill, 1960.
2- Edited by Gary Geddes, 20th Century Poetry &Poetics, 2nd Edition, 650 pages Oxford University Press, 1973